Baltimore liquor stores challenge new zoning law designed to shut them down

Arguing that the city of Baltimore violated the Constitution by trying to force them out of business, the owners of 30 liquor stores have appealed new zoning rules. Their lawyer said Tuesday that the challenges will allow the stores to remain open, at least for now.

The liquor stores are fixtures in some of Baltimore’s most troubled neighborhoods. But such stores have been linked to crime and the City Council targeted many of them for closure in a sweeping rewrite of the city’s zoning code in 2016.

The stores were supposed to stop selling liquor June 4 — a move their lawyer says was the first time since Prohibition that the city tried to force liquor stores out of business. Rather than shut down, some of the store owners are fighting back.

The cases were filed last week to the city’s zoning appeals board, but likely will end up in court.

The owners allege in their appeals that the two years the City Council gave them to close down once the clock started ticking in 2017 weren’t enough and that the city is unconstitutionally depriving them of the use of their properties.

Supporters of the law say concentrations of liquor stores, which academic research has concluded drive up crime rates, in largely African-American neighborhoods are unfair to those communities.

Many of the affected liquor stores are owned by Korean-Americans, and they have said they feel targeted because there are few business owners and residents of their race in the city.

City officials predicted when the law was passed that dozens of stores would be affected.

Not all of them are filing legal challenges. Julian Min, a representative for store owners, said that in the face of the zoning law and a previous round of stepped-up enforcement under the city’s Violence Reduction Initiative, dozens of shopkeepers decided to retire or start businesses in the suburbs.

Those who decided to fight, he said, know there’s no guarantee of success.

“They’re tired,” said Min, who is also a Baltimore Police Department detective. “A lot of business owners are tired.”

City Solicitor Andre Davis said the housing department, the police and the city’s lawyers are collaborating to enforce the zoning laws.

Davis said the stores have had plenty of time to prepare.

“They’ve known for over two years they could apply for a hardship exemption,” he said. “They’ve known for over two years they could sell or transfer their liquor license.

“None of this is a surprise.”

Peter Prevas, the attorney for the stores mounting challenges, said they have the authority to continue doing business during the appeals. The cases are expected to go before the zoning appeals board in late summer, and then the losing side could appeal to Baltimore Circuit Court.

Prevas said the law regards use of a property as a right that the government cannot take away. He said a government must provide compensation or allow a business to continue operating for a reasonable period. He rejected the city’s position that the stores had long enough.

“Two years is not a reasonable time,” Prevas said.

The appeals say the businesses don’t qualify for the hardship provisions included in the law.

And Prevas wrote that other changes in the zoning measure limit the options for liquor store owners to move within the city, “rendering the value of the liquor license at zero.”

Del. Nick Mosby, who was a member of the City Council when the zoning law passed, said the problems caused by such stores are documented and the law gave owners ample time to wind up their businesses.

“We literally have some of these establishments in the middle of residential blocks,” said Mosby, a Democrat. “The overwhelming majority are in areas of concentrated poverty.”

Some of the Korean-American store owners attempted to woo then-Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh last year, organizing lucrative fundraisers for her 2020 campaign. But Pugh, who linked liquor stores and other establishments to crime in residential neighborhoods, said she was unmoved by the contributions and she backed the efforts to close them.

After Pugh resigned last month, the Korean Society of Baltimore asked her campaign to return some $60,000 in donations from its members so they could give money to Democrat Thiru Vignarajah, a former prosecutor who is running for mayor. Min said the money hasn’t been returned.

Vignarajah said city officials are right to be concerned about the effects of the kinds of businesses that are concentrated in poor neighborhoods — such as check cashing stores, bail bonds offices and liquor stores — but it’s wrong to scapegoat one industry for crime.

“There’s no question that you’d rather have a restaurant rather than a bar, a bar rather than a liquor store,” Vignarajah said. “But there’s a question whether you’d rather have a liquor store than an empty lot.”

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